Will Electric Cars Rule the Future?

By · October 03, 2008

What will your children drive 20 years or more from now? According to one analyst, many of them are likely to take the wheel of an electric car. The primary argument for electric vehicles is overall efficiency, said Philip Gott, director of automotive consulting for industry analyst Global Insight, at the firm’s annual Detroit conference yesterday. Why? Because electric cars simply consume less “wells to wheels” energy than do the alternatives.

Gott launched his discussion with a look at the current global “car parc.” We have 800 million vehicles in the world today, he noted, with roughly 70 million new ones built each year. If China, India, and the rest of the world acquire as many vehicles per capita as Europe—which has roughly a car for every two people—we’ll end up with 3 billion cars on the planet by 2035. And if they use gasoline engines, we would need several times the volume of oil reserves currently known in Saudi Arabia just to fuel them.

Then Gott stepped back to 1900 for a history lesson. That year, US auto production was evenly split into thirds: Gasoline cars had 33 percent, but so did battery electric vehicles and steam cars. Of course, we know how that race turned out: Gasoline won, because it offered the virtues of autonomous range (no plugging in), speed, and ease of operation—once the electric self-starter was invented.

For the new century, though, three more factors come into play. Gott laid out the six criteria against which future vehicle power sources must be evaluated:

  • Whole-cycle thermal efficiency, from “wells to wheels”

  • Ease of monitoring and maintenance (to ensure low emissions and best efficiency)
  • Diversity of energy sources—how widely available is the fuel, globally?
  • Ease of use
  • Autonomous range
  • Cost

And battery electric vehicles end up with the best ratings across all six factors, compared to various types of combustion engines and fuel cells. The overall thermal efficiency of an EV is better, with 70 percent of a battery’s energy being converted to power—against just 25 percent of the energy in gasoline (heat and friction waste the rest). Coal-fired power plants aren’t hugely efficient (40 percent) but the electric grid will get progressively cleaner as federal and state mandates move toward restricting carbon and requiring a higher proportion of renewable sources. Fueling an EV with electricity generated entirely from renewable resources is best of all, of course.

Moving down the criteria, electric vehicles don’t need to be monitored for emissions, and electricity can be generated from a variety of sources and in many locations. They’re easy to use; and the steady evolution of battery technology will improve the range—even as the ways we use and pay for “transportation services” may change (think car-sharing, or paying by the mile for ownership, perhaps). Finally, cost will gradually come down to be competitive with combustion engines—and Global Insight’s various economists agreed that growing demand and the increasing cost of extraction will keep oil prices within their current range, or higher, for the foreseeable future.

These changes won’t happen overnight, and they don’t mean that combustion engines will vanish. Such changes will take decades, and there will always be duties for which only combustion engines are suited. And hybrids are very likely to claim an ever larger percentage of the road.

Gott pointed out that in 1900, battery and steam vehicles were preferred for city usage, while gasoline cars were only used in rural areas. Perhaps, he suggested, we may be headed back to the future.

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